- Film & Year: Dishonored Lady (1947)
- Studio: United Artists
- Starring: Hedy Lamarr, Dennis O’Keefe, John Loder, Morris Carnovsky, William Lundigan, Margaret Hamilton
- Director: Robert Stevenson
- Producer: Hunt Stromberg Productions and Mars Film Corporation
- Production Notes: Music by Carmen Dragon, Cinematography by Lucien N. Andriot, Screenplay by Edmund H. North, Gowns by Elois Jenssen
Madeleine Damien (Hedy Lamarr) has the coveted job of magazine art editor by day, while by night she enjoys casual dates with a string of men. Hedy’s Madeleine is beautiful. If you didn’t pick up on this fact by the many soft focus closeups, the film makes sure that every character in the film (and some newspaper headlines) comment on it more than once. Apparently no one in Madeleine’s life (including Madeleine herself) can handle the fact that she is not only beautiful and successful, but has a lively after hours social life. Though she appears to be in control and has the confidence to wear hats I would never even attempt to pull off in public, she is depressed, a situation made worse by the pressure of her job and the constant shaming by her co-workers, especially Jack Garet (William Lundigan) who doesn’t hide that he wants her bod while simultaneously bad mouthing her. Garet is the type of lowlife who speaks to female coworkers with ultra masculine condescension while also trying to bum large sums of money off of them.
After experiencing a depression fueled fugue, Madeleine (spelled and pronounced the French way because she posh like that) deliberately and fortuitously crashes her car into the home of a psychiatrist, Dr. Caleb (Morris Carnovsky), who correctly deduces that this was a suicide attempt instead of an accident and that she is in need of his assistance. She eventually becomes his patient and, with his help, tries to understand why she’s so unhappy and is drawn to one night stands that will never become more than that.
On cue, Madeleine begins an affair with smarmy diamond dealer, Felix Courtland (John Loder). This affair is no different than any of her other Friday nights, but Courtland quickly becomes obsessed with her. Madeleine feels nothing for him except lust and being unable to tap into any true, deep emotions drives herself deeper into despair. Dr. Caleb convinces her that she needs a fresh start so she, by his suggestion, quits her job and disappears without a forwarding address from the toxic environment she’s in so that she may focus on herself.
At this point it’s important to note that every man in the film thus far, aside from Dr. Caleb, has been mesmerized by her beauty. She is so hot that she literally has to move to a different city and assume a new identity just to escape all of the men who want her.
Madeleine moves into a small apartment, adopts a new surname, reconnects with her love of painting, and attempts for 5 minutes to experience some much needed “me time” until her cursed beauty snares another one. Her handsome but nerdy neighbor David Cousins (Dennis O’Keefe) is a doctor who has obviously never been on a date. They strike up a friendship, after he asks her to provide drawings to accompany his medical research, and they spend so much time together that they eventually fall in love. He wants to marry her, but she is wary of her past catching up with her. She’s right to worry. The predatory Felix Courtland tracks her down and threatens to expose her true identity and sordid past unless she resumes their affair. When David goes out of town, Madeleine gets drunk and ends up accepting a ride home with Courtland…who takes her to his place instead. She succumbs to her old patterns and starts to give in to Courtland’s advances despite her love for David, when they are interrupted by a visitor. Courtland exits out of Madeleine’s sight and she hears raised voices, though she isn’t sure who the visitor is. It’s none other than Jack Garet who has come to plead with Courtland not to call the authorities after Courtland realized that Garet stole a diamond from his safe. The shouting match brings Madeleine to her senses and she flees out the back. When she’s gone, Garet kills Courtland and gets to work framing Madeleine for the murder.
When the police arrive to question her under her real name and in front of David, Madeleine knows the jig is finally up. Betrayed and horrified about her past, David turns his back on her and Madeleine becomes so depressed at losing his love and respect that she has no energy to fight back and clear her name…even when she’s charged with murder…
So who will pay for the crime?
Because of the strict sexual censorship of the Hays Code, much of the apparent raciness of Madeleine’s relationships were lost. Even the innuendo is benign. Because of this, it’s hard not to watch the film and wonder, even within the context of the social rules of the time, what’s the big deal about a couple of champagne cocktails at a nightclub with one man followed by a makeout session with another? I get that the sex is supposed to be implied…only it isn’t, really.
While I would not call this Hedy’s best performance, it was also not her worst. She is sufficiently beautiful, as the role demanded, but also shows some range in her emotional breakdown moments. The character of love interest Dr. David Cousins, played by Dennis O’Keefe, just narrowly misses being completely milquetoast. It’s the intellectual relationship between the two and his capacity for compassion and self evaluation that makes him a more interesting character. Loder is appropriately gross as the lecherous Courtland and, at the time they made the film, Loder and Lamarr were married, though the union would not last much longer. This knowledge makes the context of their scenes together all the more interesting as you wonder whether that shared kiss contained real passion or suppressed loathing. Either one works for the film. Morris Carnovsky plays the wise, asexual psychiatrist (he is the only male in the film unfazed by Madeleine’s sexual appeal), a role which does not deviate from nearly every portrayal on film of a psychiatrist in the 1940s and 1950s. Still, Carnovsky makes for a refreshingly non-toxic male in a story filled with them.
Did I like the film? I’m still trying to figure it out. What I do know is that Hedy Lamarr is beautiful (I can pick up on a hint) and can wear the heck out of a hat.
Madeleine doesn’t murder Felix, but she does kill it in the headwear department